Nov 182017

On this date in 1928 Steamboat Willie, an animated short film directed by Walt Disney and mostly drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (who rarely gets credit for his substantial part in making early Disney cartoons), was first shown publicly at Universal’s Colony Theater in New York City. Walt Disney Studios considers the cartoon to be the debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie, although both the characters appeared several months earlier in a test screening of Plane Crazy. In fact, Steamboat Willie was the third cartoon featuring Mickey’s films to be produced, but was the first to be distributed because Walt Disney, having seen The Jazz Singer, had committed himself to producing the first fully synchronized sound cartoon. Because this date is Mickey’s public debut, the Disney corporation considers it to be his birthday, so we should celebrate too. But remember it is Minnie’s birthday as well.

Throughout the earlier years, Mickey’s design bore heavy resemblance to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (an earlier Iwerks and Disney creation), save for the ears, nose, and tail. Ub Iwerks designed Mickey’s body out of circles in order to make the character simple to animate. Disney employees John Hench and Marc Davis believed that this design was part of Mickey’s success as it made him more dynamic and appealing to audiences. Mickey’s circular design is most noticeable in his ears. In animation in the 1940s, Mickey’s ears were animated in a more realistic perspective. Later, they were drawn to always appear circular no matter which way Mickey was facing. This made Mickey easily recognizable to audiences and made his ears an unofficial personal trademark.


In 1938, animator Fred Moore redesigned Mickey’s body away from its circular design to a pear-shaped design. Colleague Ward Kimball praised Moore for being the first animator to break from Mickey’s “rubber hose, round circle” design. Although Moore himself was nervous at first about changing Mickey, Walt Disney liked the new design and told Moore “that’s the way I want Mickey to be drawn from now on.” I wonder if at this point the similarity between Disney and Thomas Edison has dawned on you. Both men were skilled in business and marketing, yet get credited with innovations that they did not create. Edison did not invent the light bulb and Disney did not draw Mickey Mouse.

Each of Mickey’s hands has only three fingers and a thumb. Disney said that this was both an artistic and financial decision, explaining “Artistically five digits are too many for a mouse. His hand would look like a bunch of bananas. Financially, not having an extra finger in each of 45,000 drawings that make up a six and one-half minute short has saved the Studio millions.” In the film The Opry House (1929), Mickey was first given white gloves as a way of contrasting his naturally black hands against his black body. The use of white gloves would prove to be an influential design for cartoon characters, particularly with later Disney characters, but also with non-Disney characters such as Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, and Mario. Whether consciously or unconsciously, there is no question that Mickey’s early appearance, particularly the gloves, and facial characteristics, evolved from blackface caricatures used in minstrel shows.

Mickey’s eyes, as drawn in Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, were large and white with black outlines. In Steamboat Willie, the bottom portion of the black outlines was removed, although the upper edges still contrasted with his head. Mickey’s eyes were later re-imagined as only consisting of the small black dots which were originally his pupils, while what were the upper edges of his eyes became a hairline. This is evident only when Mickey blinks. Fred Moore later redesigned the eyes to be small white eyes with pupils and gave his face a Caucasian skin tone instead of plain white. This new Mickey first appeared in 1938 on the cover of a party program, and in animation the following year with the release of The Pointer. Mickey is sometimes given eyebrows as seen in The Simple Things (1953) and in the comic strip, although he does not have eyebrows in his most recent appearances.

Besides Mickey’s gloves and shoes, he typically wears only a pair of shorts with two large buttons in the front. Before Mickey was seen regularly in color animation, Mickey’s shorts were either red or a dull blue-green. With the advent of Mickey’s color films, the shorts were always red. When Mickey is not wearing his red shorts, he is often still wearing red clothing such as a red bandmaster coat (The Band Concert, The Mickey Mouse Club), red overalls (Clock Cleaners, Boat Builders), a red cloak (Fantasia, Fun and Fancy Free), a red coat (Squatter’s Rights, Mickey’s Christmas Carol), or a red shirt (Mickey Down Under, The Simple Things).

Steamboat Willie is especially notable for being the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound, including character sounds and a musical score. Disney understood from early on that synchronized sound was the future of film. It was the first cartoon to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack which distinguished it from earlier sound cartoons such as Inkwell Studios’ Song Car-Tunes (1924–1927) and Van Beuren Studios’ Dinner Time (1928). Steamboat Willie became the most popular cartoon of its day.

Music for Steamboat Willie was arranged by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis, and included the songs “Steamboat Bill,” a composition popularized by baritone Arthur Collins during the 1910s, and “Turkey in the Straw,”  a traditional fiddle tune popularized by minstrelsy in the 19th century. The title of the film is a parody of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), itself a reference to the song by Collins. Walt Disney performed all of the voices in the film, although there is little intelligible dialogue.

The production of Steamboat Willie took place between July and September 1928 with an estimated budget of $4,986. There was initially some doubt among the animators that a sound cartoon would appear believable enough, so before a soundtrack was produced, Disney arranged for a screening of the film to a test audience with live sound to accompany it. This screening took place on July 29 with Steamboat Willie only partly finished. The audience sat in a room adjoining Walt’s office. Roy placed the movie projector outdoors and the film was projected through a window so that the sound of the projector would not interfere with the live sound. Ub Iwerks set up a bed sheet behind the movie screen behind which he placed a microphone connected to speakers where the audience would sit. The live sound was produced from behind the bed sheet. Wilfred Jackson played the music on a mouth organ, Ub Iwerks banged on pots and pans for the percussion segment, and Johnny Cannon provided sound effects with various devices, including slide whistles and spittoons for bells. Walt himself provided what little dialogue there was to the film, mostly grunts, laughs, and squawks. After several practices, they were ready for the audience, which consisted of Disney employees and their wives. The response of the audience was extremely positive, and it gave Walt the confidence to move forward and complete the film. He said later in recalling this first viewing, “The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!” Iwerks said, “I’ve never been so thrilled in my life. Nothing since has ever equaled it.”

Disney traveled to New York City to hire a company to produce the sound system. He eventually settled on Pat Powers’s Cinephone system, created by Powers using an updated version of Lee De Forest’s Phonofilm system without giving De Forest any credit, a decision he would later regret (but typical of Disney). The music in the final soundtrack was performed by the Green Brothers Novelty Band and was conducted by Carl Edouarde. The brothers Joe and Lew Green from the band also assisted in timing the music to the film. The first attempt to synchronize the recording with the film, done on September 15, 1928, was a disaster. Disney had to sell his Moon roadster in order to finance a second recording. This was a success with the addition of a filmed bouncing ball to keep the tempo.

Steamboat Willie’s initial run lasted two weeks. Disney was paid $500 a week which was considered a tidy sum at the time. It played ahead of the independent feature film Gang War, setting up a theater pattern that would last for decades, showing a short cartoon before the feature film. That was the norm when I was a boy.The success of Steamboat Willie not only led to international fame for Walt Disney, but for Mickey as well. On November 21, Variety magazine published a review which read in part “Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. [Steamboat Willie] represents a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects. The union brought laughs galore. Giggles came so fast at the Colony [Theater] they were stumbling over each other.”

Let’s turn to another cartoon, Mickey’s Trailer (1938), featuring Mickey, Donald Duck, and Goofy, for recipe inspiration:

You could make pancakes or corn on the cob, of course, but popcorn is my choice because popcorn is a perennial favorite of moviegoers. Popping corn is about as old as the domestication of corn itself. Corn was first domesticated 9,000 BP in Mesoamerica, and the earliest corn produced in this way could be popped (although it probably wasn’t). However, archaeologists have discovered remnants of popcorn in Mesoamerica dating to around 5600 BP. Popcorn has been around for a very long time.

These days there are popcorn poppers, microwaveable popcorn packets, prepackaged stovetop popcorn assemblages and the like, but when I was a boy my parents made popcorn (very rarely) in very traditional manner using a heavy pot with a lid. It is a lot easier to use a home air popper if you are a big fan of popcorn because the results are always consistent and there is no expertise involved: add unpopped kernels, turn the machine on, and catch the popcorn as it comes out of the spout. Effective, but hardly a challenge. Popping corn the old fashioned way is fun.

Popping results are sensitive to the rate at which the kernels are heated. If heated too quickly, the steam in the outer layers of the kernel can reach high pressures and rupture the hull before the starch in the center of the kernel can fully gelatinize, leading to partially popped kernels with hard centers. Heating too slowly leads to entirely unpopped kernels: the tip of the kernel, where it attached to the cob, is not entirely moisture-proof, and when heated slowly, the steam can leak out of the tip fast enough to keep the pressure from rising sufficiently to break the hull and cause the kernels to pop. So . . .

Use a large, heavy pot with a tight lid. Place a tablespoon of vegetable oil in the bottom of the pot, add three popcorn kernels, cover and place over medium-high heat. Count the pops, and when all three have popped, remove the pot from the heat, discard the popped kernels and add ⅔ cup of unpopped popcorn. Cover and let sit for about 20 seconds. Then put the pot back on the heat, shaking it from time to time. As you begin to hear the popping, shake the pot more vigorously. After about 2 minutes the popping will virtually stop. Immediately remove the pot from the heat. Toss the popcorn in a large paper bag with the seasonings of your choice (e.g. butter and salt or honey and butter), fold over the top of the bag tightly trapping air in the bag.  Shake vigorously a few times then pour the popcorn into a bowl and dig in.

Jul 212016


Today is one of those dates where two allied anniversaries coincide – perhaps deliberately. On this date in 1904 Louis Rigolly, from France, became the first person to break the 100 mph (161 km/h) barrier on land, and on the same date in 1925 Sir Malcolm Campbell, from England, became the first man to break the 150 mph (241 km/h) land barrier. These, and similar “barriers” are pretty much a function of the metrics you use. 100 mph has a nice ring to it (we used to call it “the ton”), because 100 is a nice round number in the decimal system. But it’s only significant if you measure distance in miles. In kilometers per hour 100 mph is 160.934 – ugh. It’s round enough, I suppose (if you knock off the decimals), but lacks the nice ring that 100 has. It’s the same with 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When the weather hits 100 degrees everyone comments, even though 99 is bloody hot. On the other hand 37.777 Celsius is just as hot, but there’s nothing remarkable about the number. Numbers are magical.

Louis Rigolly, set a land speed record of 103.561 mph (166.665 km/h) on a beach at Ostend in Belgium on 21 July 1904, driving a 13.5 litre Gobron-Brillié racing car. He covered a 1 kilometer course in 21.6 seconds, beating Belgian Pierre de Caters mark of 97.25 mph (156.51 km/h), set the previous May over the same course.


Back in the early 20th century things were fairly straightforward. To create a land speed record you rode in a wheel-driven car. That’s what was available, and the records were an extension of the giddiness that pushed Industrial-Revolution era scientists and engineers of the 19th century to new heights. That giddiness was still around, but fading, when I lived in South Australia in the 1960s and Donald Campbell, son of Malcolm, came to Lake Eyre with the latest version of Bluebird. He established a new land speed record for a wheel-driven car of 403.1 mph in 1964, but by then jet and rocket propelled vehicles had entered the race and quickly went on to supersede wheel-driven vehicles. Besides, the race to the moon and other adventures had stolen the thunder of land speedsters.


Nowadays the absolute land speed record is held by Andy Green a wing commander in the RAF. On 25 September 1997 in ThrustSSC he beat the previous record in Black Rock Desert, USA, reaching a speed of 714.144 mph (1,149.303 km/h). On October 15, 1997, 50 years and 1 day after the sound barrier was broken in aerial flight by Chuck Yeager, Green reached 763.035 miles per hour (1,227.986 km/h), the first supersonic land speed record (Mach 1.016).


Maybe I’m not macho enough, but speed records have never excited me. I don’t especially like driving fast, although I have done the ton a few times in my youth. I think of speed as a disease of the modern era. Fast food can be a particular species of this general malady, but it doesn’t have to be. There are obviously a number of fast food joints that I cannot stomach (literally), and they are deservedly derided as peddlers of junk food. To produce a hamburger in under a minute you have to cut corners. But not all food is bad simply because you make it quickly. Some commercial fast foods can be quite decent. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Cincinnati chili which is served in a flash. The 3-way is the standard, chili over spaghetti and topped with cheese. I always go for a bowl of plain myself – chile and nothing else.  I love the taste and texture of the chili, and cannot for the life of me replicate it at home, though I’ve tried many times.


Cincinnati chili originated with immigrant restaurateurs from Macedonia who were trying to expand their customer base by moving beyond narrowly ethnic styles of cuisine. Tom and John Kiradjieff began serving a “stew with traditional Mediterranean spices” as a topping for hot dogs which they called “coneys” in 1922 at their hot dog stand located next to a burlesque theater called the Empress. Tom Kiradjieff used the sauce to modify a traditional Greek dish, speculated to have been pastitsio, moussaka or saltsa kima to come up with a dish he called chili spaghetti. He first developed a recipe calling for the spaghetti to be cooked in the chili but changed his method in response to customer requests and began serving the sauce as a topping, eventually adding grated cheese as a topping for both the chili spaghetti and the coneys, also in response to customer requests. That’s the way it is to this day at numerous chili joints throughout Cincinnati. Skyline is my favorite. I’ve never yet left one without eating at least 2 bowls of plain.

The reason that Cincinnati chili can be served as fast food is not that it is made quickly: just the opposite. It is made over 2 days, but then is kept piping hot so that it can be served in a flash. So it’s only fast food in one sense. The slow cooking is what makes it good. What about food that is cooked quickly but is also good? There’s the challenge. “Quickly” is, of course, a relative term. 30 minutes is a common standard in home kitchens as popularized by the execrable shows of Rachel Ray.  You can do better than that. If you want quick, eat an apple.

What you must do is factor in preparation time. For a while there were endless commercials on television for the Magic Bullet which made you believe that you could cook delicious, complex dishes in seconds. Rubbish. Sure, the presenters showed the Bullet whipping up stuff in no time, but all the vegetables were peeled and diced, the meat trimmed of fat and cut into handy chunks, and so forth. If you add in preparation seconds become minutes, even hours. Cooking quickly for me means doing everything from scratch from start to finish when you are ravenous and don’t want to wait. Although I love slow-cooked food, I can whip up something in a hurry if need be. Eggs are the obvious choice. They are made to be cooked quickly. Omelets make great fast food.

Every cook I know cooks omelets somewhat differently.  For me the key is the pan and the heat source, not the ingredients. I used to use an old, well-used omelet pan that I had kept for over 30 years. It was small and made of solid heavy metal, blackened on the bottom from endless use. It did not have a commercial non-stick cooking surface, but properly treated it did not stick. I lost it in one of my many moves and break ups – more tragic to me than the loss of the relationship. For me, gas is the best heat source because it is instantly controllable.

I can’t teach you how to make an omelet my way by talking about it. You need to see me at work. Here’s the basics.

Crack 2 eggs into a small cup.


Beat the eggs lightly with a fork until the whites and yolks are mixed but not completely homogenized (what the Chinese call “silver and gold.”)


Heat the pan over high heat until it is very hot. Add butter and let it melt, swirling to coat the pan.


Before all the butter is completely melted, dump in the eggs.


Let the eggs cook, pulling the cooked parts aside now and again and letting the raw egg flow on to the pan’s surface.


When the omelet is almost ready, which for me means that the surface is runny, but the main part is cooked, let it sit with the heat off for 30 seconds. The residual heat will continue the cooking.

Turn the omelet on to a plate and serve. I like to add a few grinds of black pepper.


Start to finish 3 minutes, tops. Of course, I know what I am doing.

Variations are legion. You can add herbs, ham, cheese etc., or you can make a plain omelet and fill it with what you will. I’ve made numerous varieties. But the plain omelet is hard to beat. The photos here are from this morning – cooked in the middle of writing.